You visit FACT on 11 March. The foyer is flooded with people, maybe you are with friends or family. You make your way through the crowd towards Gallery 1, push open the door, and step forward into - well, not the gallery.
You appear in space. Gallery 1 is gone. You’re floating just above the earth - but not because there’s no gravity. It is a common misconception that astronauts travelling on the International Space Station float due to lack of gravity. In reality, there is a small amount of gravity everywhere in space and as the International Space Station (and you) are only about 250 miles from the surface of the earth, the decrease in gravity is miniscule.
In fact, the gravity experienced at this distance from the earth is around 90% of that experienced on the surface. You’re floating because technically you’re falling. Don’t worry though; in orbit you will never fall back to earth. You are travelling so quickly that the earth curves away from you as fast as you fall towards it.
So you are stuck in space. But surely you are only seconds away from a sticky end? Films such as Event Horizon, Armageddon and Total Recall seem to suggest that you will either dramatically explode or immediately freeze to death. Well, assuming that you don’t have a spacesuit then you are doomed… but you won’t explode.
In reality, whilst the change in ambient pressure might mean that your bodily fluids start to produce gas bubbles, you won’t explode because your skin is super stretchy. Your blood will not boil because it is not directly exposed to the vacuum of space. You won’t freeze either, as in the vacuum of space your body cannot lose heat because to lose heat, it must be able to transfer that heat to something else (thermal conduction). In a vacuum there is nothing for the heat to be transferred to.
So it’s probably the lack of oxygen which would kill you. If you try to hold your breath the air would rapidly expand, rupturing your lungs. When transferred to space all the air would be sucked out of your lungs anyway, and you would pass out in around 15 seconds. A complete lack of oxygen would give you around two minutes before death. Wow.
So let’s assume you have a space suit. You are now reasonably safe from bodily explosion, freezing and some radiation. Although the levels of radiation experienced at this distance in space are over 80 times that experienced on Earth, your spacesuit should at least partially protect you. However, if you headed further into space these levels could become deadly. Spacesuits have many layers to protect the wearer from the universe, some layers convey oxygen, others regulate temperature, most even have a small jetpack on the back called SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue). Although this is little use to you if you don’t have a spaceship to propel yourself back to.
Seems like you might be stuck here a while? Might as well take in the sights. Assuming you’re orbiting at the same speed as the space station, you’ll see a complete rotation of Earth (and a sunrise!) every 92 minutes. You are moving at 5 miles per second! From this distance you might be able to see some of the following monuments; The Great Pyramids at Giza (the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world), The Greenhouses of Almería (a sea of plastic greenhouses which cover over 64,000 acres in Southern Eastern Spain), and lots of man-made bridges and roads. However, it’s a myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from this height. China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, returned to Earth in 2003 and said; “The scenery was very beautiful...but I didn’t see the Great Wall.”
Ok, so you have seen the Earth’s beauty. In your space suit you have approximately seven and a half hours of breathable air. But watching the Earth go through an entire rotation means you now only have just under six hours. So how close would you have to be to the space station to be able to get back to it with your jetpack?
SAFER has never been used as a emergency rescue device in space, as no astronaut has floated away from the International Space Station. This is due to the extensive precautions that are taken during space walks. Astronauts are attached to the ISS structure by tethers and grips. The SAFER contains 1.4kg of gaseous nitrogen, meaning you can move at about 10 feet (3 meters) per second. During space flight STS-92 the unit was tested by astronauts Wisoff and Lopez-Alegria, who flew up to 50 feet. In short, the amount of distance you could travel using this jetpack is limited and you would have to be within view of the ISS to have any chance of making it on board.
You begin to panic, the ISS is not near you, so what do you do now? Space is fairly empty from your point of view, it’s large and you’re not floating near anything at all. It’s also eerily quiet. Sound does not travel through the vacuum of space. You close your eyes. Someone is tapping you on the arm, you look up at the gallery space as Kurokawa’s artwork bursts into life through the screens and speakers. You travel further into space.
Join us for the opening of unfold, on Friday 11 March from 5pm.